Ferdinand Ries and Paganini

Edited by Robert Braine

Written by E. van der Straeten

Ferdinand Ries (1784-1838), the famous pupil of Beethoven, who wrote some remarkably fine symphonies and choral works, gives an interesting account of his personal intercourse with Paganini and Carl Guhr, who studied Paganini’s playing, tried to imitate him, and published in 1829 a book On Paganini’s Art of Playing the Violin (Ueber Paganini’s kunst die Violine zu spielen). Ries’s account is contained in some letters to his brother Joseph, who held a responsible position with Messrs. Broadwood & Sons, the well known London pianoforte manufacturers. It is all the more valuable, as he was a man of culture and refinement, who, by the integrity of his life and kindliness of heart, was beloved and revered by all who knew him. With Vienna and Viennese artists Ries was in constant touch from the time that he studied under Beethoven, and thence he received his first account of Paganini.

On May 21, 1828, he writes to his brother Joseph: “I have seen a letter from Mayseder in Vienna. He says all violin players may as well hang up their fiddles on the wall now that Paganini has come – it must be beyond all conception. He has given seven concerts in Vienna, and taken over 100,000 florins. What will friend Mori say to that? Nicholas Mori, a pupil of Viotti, was then one of the foremost London violinists. He is mentioned also in a comic song about Paganini published in London about 1831:

Great King, King of Catgut! Agitato! Presto! Who but he, sirs,

Mori, Spagnoletti, now must second fiddle play, sirs – 

Glory be to Tweedle Dum! success to Tweedle Dee! sirs

Towards the end of 1829 Paganini came to Frankfurt, where Guhr, the conductor of the opera, heard him, and from hearing wrote down some of his solos. Being a good violinist, he set himself to practice these hard, and soon imagined he could emulate Paganini. The results we learn from Ries letter of January 2, 1830: “Guhr announced and played a Concert a la Paganini for his Christmas concert at the theatre here, including the Recitativo Preghiera, from Moses, and variations of the G string, written down from memory and played – you cannot imagine any such charlatanry, it was bad beyond description. In the variations he missed every point. He stood quite alone on the stage, played by hears, and was very pale, either from fear, anger or shame. Paganini himself was present at the concert. He is still here, and during his present stay I have become on a very intimate footing with him. We visit each other, and often dine together. At the beginning of April he will be going to London. I shall direct him to you among others, and you must give him some advice in economical matters. I told him that he could rely upon you, as he is of a very suspicious nature. He is in every respect the most interesting and also the most singular phenomenon – as artist and as man. He will go via Bonn and Cologne to Paris. He plays to me often in his room, and a similar sureness I have never met with.

“It seems that wherever the long, shriveled fingers fall on to the finger board they are with absolute certainty in the right place. The fingers bend entirely, he takes many notes with the flat part of the finger, not with the tip, and yet is sounds. The A and E strings are very thin. I came to him already five times when he was playing the violin, but so softly that I could hear nothing in front of the door to his room. He eats and sleeps much, frequently at his meals. He drinks little, and one can hardly understand how his body hold together.”

The Real Paganini

This description from the pen of a musician like Ries is of the very greatest interest, as we have thousands of high flown panegyrics, even poetical similes and descriptions by men like Schumann, Liszt, etc., but very few of his contemporaries give us any actual facts about the man and his art. Here, then, we find the statement about his thin strings confirmed, plus details about the application of the fingers of his left hand, which I do not remember to have seen in other biographies. His care that nobody but intimate friends should hear him play outside the concert room is easily understood, and what Ries tells us about his eating much and falling asleep at meals shows how his overwrought system fought in a most natural way for its very existence, for without much rest or sleep he could neither have digested his food nor borne the constant strain on his weakened nerves and constitution. In the following leters we see Paganini again in a different light. First they show his enigmatic nature, later on the child like respect and tender sympathy for the veteran musician, Dr. Franz Ries, Ferdinand’s father, a lovable trait in the character of a man who was variously and maliciously described as a miser, a murderer – nay, even as in league with the archfiend of man. Frankfort proved a great attraction to Paganini. The beginning of 1830 found him still in that town, and it was about that time that Schumann heard him play. On January 16, Ferd. Ries writes to his brother:

“I am on very intimate terms with him, but cannot make him out. I don’t believe he can himself.” On February 8 he writes again, informing his brother about the state of his comparatively new Broadwood grand pianoforte, which rattled badly, and he was anxious to withhold the fact from public knowledge. “I refused yesterday,” he writes, “to play with Paganini for the benefit of the poor. My rheumatism had to serve as the reason. The secret reason, however, is that I should have injured myself as well as Broadwood, everybody being anxious to hear the instrument played in public…Paganini told me yesterday he would stay here till I returned (Ries was going to conduct his opera, The Roberbride, at Cologne), I cannot understand it.” The fascination of Frankfort and the great pianist – composer to exercise it spell over Paganini, as we may see from Ries’s letter of April 26: “Paganini gave a concert here on Easter Sunday, and played more beautifully than ever. Yesterday he gave his farewell concert, but did not play so well by far. The house was not filled. I think that disconcerted him. He will not go either to London or to Paris this year, but will travel about in the watering places. One cannot make him out.” On May 19 we hear from Dusseldorf “I took Paganini with me to Bonn. You cannot imagine father’s joy about him and his playing. He was very amiable, too, played for instance at the rehearsal everything with a full tone, so that my father should be able to hear him twice, a thing he never did at Frankfort. Today he is to give a concert here also, and then goes via Elberfeld to Cassels, and again to Frankfort. Next year only he will go to Paris and London. Once cannot rely for half an hour on his plans or what he says”.

On November 6 he was in Frankfort again, as we learn from Ries: “Paganini is giving another concert on Monday, and says he will go to Paris and to England after that”.

“A little play has been given here by a stranger, Mr. Just: “Nicolo Zaganini, the great virtuoso”. I have never seen such an imitation. Paganini himself was in one of the boxes, and laughed heartily. One really would have sworn it was himself. His playing was, of course, parodied, but not offensively. It will be given today for the third time before a full house. It is an extraordinary thing to see. I believe if they came together in front of the footlights one would be unable to tell the real one from his counterfeit”.

Early in 1831 Paganini carried out his intentions, and traveling to Strasburg, he gave two concerts with his wonted success. He visited Paris and London. Ries and Paganini however, were never to meet again.